How to Train a Pit Bull Puppy to be Nice

Medium
1-24 Months
Behavior

Introduction

When your neighbor found out you were planning on getting a Pit Bull puppy, she was horrified. The problem was she had only ever heard bad things about the breed, where old prejudices are repeated. It took a while to talk her down and explain that dogs are a product of their experiences and training. You convince her that your pup is going to be nice, friendly, and well-behaved. Now all you have to do is put theory into practice. 

To put the plan into action you find a breeder whose mother dog is good-natured and who believes in socializing the pups from the start. When the puppy comes home you invite people round to pet him and give treats, and you enroll in a puppy class. So far so good, and when the neighbor caught sight of a lively pup in the yard, wagging his tail, even her heart began to melt. 

Defining Tasks

Teaching a puppy to be nice is all about having a well-behaved dog that is gentle and obedient. For example, you want the dog to be confident around strangers and not be anxious near children. This is because the next step from anxiety is growling and then biting, should the dog continue to feel threatened. 

This requires you to socialize the puppy well with a variety of different people and environments, and put positive reward-based training methods in place from a young age. This gives the youngster the tools needed to be well-adjusted and confident adult dog that is a pleasure to be around. 

Getting Started

Training a Pit Bull puppy to be nice is about commitment and knowledge, rather than needing special equipment. You need to be aware of the latest thinking in dog psychology and how positive training methods using rewards is best. Your aim is to guide the pup as to what is appropriate or 'nice' behavior and then reward this. 

You will need:

  • Treats. Bite-sized and tasty, so the dog is eager to have them but won't spend ages eating them. 
  • A bag or pouch in which to keep the treats handy at all times.
  • A toy that the pup likes to play with to use as a reward
  • Plenty of dog-friendly people who are willing to meet and greet the puppy in a positive way
  • Places to visit with the puppy such as a pet store or school.
  • Access to a well-run puppy class

The Socialize the Puppy Method

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Why does socialization matter?
When a puppy is isolated in their first 18 weeks, their life experiences are limited. After 18 weeks, anything outside of their previous experience is met with suspicion and makes the dog anxious. When a fearful dog is pressed further (such as the thing they are afraid of doesn't go away) the dog may then become defensive and bite as a means of protecting themselves. The reverse of this is exposing the pup in a controlled and positive way to as many different situations, people, sights, and sounds as possible while the pup's mind is still 'plastic' and able to register such things as normal and nothing to be alarmed about.
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The vital socialization window
Puppies are geared to rapid learning up until 12 weeks of age. After this, they can still learn and adapt up to 18 weeks of age, but the process is not as quick. After 18 weeks, it takes intensive retraining to make up for a lack of early experience. It is therefore vital that as soon as the breeder is able to handle the pups without upsetting the mother, that they start to do so. This is continued right through rehoming, with the new owner taking on the responsibility for exposing the pup to new things.
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Positive encounters
It is vital the puppy enjoys the new experience or encounter, otherwise they may learn to be fearful of it. This means when socializing the puppy with children, choose kids that are used to dogs and know how to pet a puppy gently. Do not mix the puppy with kids who are frightened of dogs and liable to squeal or scream when even an amiable puppy comes ambling towards them. Likewise, it might be necessary to introduce a noisy object (such as a vacuum cleaner) at a distance first, while praising the puppy when they are calm or playing a game to distract pup from the noise.
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Set a socialization schedule
Time passes quickly so be organized and draw up a schedule of the new experiences you want to expose the puppy to. Think of places to visit where the puppy will encounter a wide range of people. Although the pup maybe too young to go on the floor, you can cradle pup in your arms. Places to consider visiting include standing outside a pet store (you're almost guaranteed a steady stream of dog lovers who want to pet your pup) and outside a school when the kids come out. Keep a supply of treats handy and have those strangers give the pup a treat so as to help the pup understand that people don't need to be viewed with suspicion.
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Experiences to consider
Using the above principles of positive exposure, have the puppy encounter several new things a day. You want them to experience noisy things (cars, buses, vacuum, hairdryer, washing machine etc.), different ages and colors of people with their different pitched voices and accents, men, women, and children, other species of animals such as horses, cats, and cattle, different places such as schools, stores, and the park. You may even want to have the puppy walk on different surfaces (pebbles, gravel, concrete, wood, laminate floor, linoleum) as even this can be anxiety-provoking in an adult that has not encountered them before.
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The Reward-Based Training Method

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Understand the importance of positive leadership
Pit Bull are a strong-minded breed and do best when they have a strong leader to follow. This doesn't mean dominating the dog (see 'Dos and Don'ts') but instead teaching the dog to listen to you by using reward-based training methods. When the puppy learns to take commands from you, they feel reassured, are able to relax and be nice. Positive training also helps build the dog's self-confidence, which again reduces anxiety and helps them behave well around other people.
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What is reward-based training?
This is as it sounds and is a training method where the dog is rewarded when they do well. For a puppy, this might be praise and a treat when they are relaxed while a child strokes them. For an adult it might be teaching an advanced trick, and praising the dog and giving a treat when they master each step of the trick. The timing of giving the treat is important. You should give a verbal marker (such as saying "Yes" in a cheery voice) or use a clicker, at the exact moment the dog does what's wanted. Then give the praise or reward immediately after that.
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Building good manners in a puppy
When you have a well-mannered puppy then they will grow into an adult that is reliable and nice in a variety of strange situations. Start by teaching pup to be nice when they encounter strangers. Use the reward-based method by praising the pup when they are relaxed, perhaps gently wagging their tail, when greeted by a stranger. This builds positive associations that lead to good behavior in the adult.
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Take control with training
A nice Pit Bull is well-mannered and under control at all times. This means having them obedience trained. You can start reward-based training with a pup, by doing things such as saying "Come" when the pup happens to run towards you, then reward them when they arrive. Likewise, start teaching 'sit' and 'look' from an early age. Both of these commands empower you to control the dog if they're starting to get over-excited or out of control.
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Teach the pup to be calm
A common problem is that puppies tend to get over-excited and start mouthing or play biting. It's important to nip this in the bud so that they learn to play nice. If during a game the puppy gets carried away, stop the game immediately and withdraw attention. Only resume the game when puppy is calm. If necessary, play in 15 second bursts with a brief pause for pup to calm down. This teaches the pup self-control, which is part-way to being nice.
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The Do's and Don'ts Method

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Don't: Dominate
Older training methods are centered on dominating the dog and exerting your authority. They may use methods such as the alpha role or physical punishment in order to show the dog who's boss. However, these methods are now known to do more harm than good. While the dog may outwardly appear obedient to that master, inwardly they are in a heightened state of fear arousal. Should the dog then encounter something unpleasant, say a child that pulls their ear, then they become more likely to attack, not less.
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Do: Teach bite inhibition
As soon as your Pit Bull puppy comes home, start teaching bite inhibition. Then the puppy learns human skin is fragile and that teeth have no place on it. When a pup grows up inhibited about placing teeth on skin, this is what will protect that child who pulls the dog's ear.
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Do: Teach basic commands
It's crucial the pup learns to listen to you and automatically obeys when asked to do something. Vital commands that every Pit Bull should know include 'sit', 'stay', 'down', 'look', and 'come'.
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Do: Train regularly
Train for a few minutes several times a day, and set this as a pattern for life. Even once the pup has mastered basic commands, keep going with more advanced ones or having the pup 'stay' for longer, so listening and learning become a way of life.
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Don't: Stress the dog
Avoid putting the dog in stressful situations that are out of their control. This can result in anxiety, which will test the dog's ability to be nice.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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